The clock read 10:11 a.m. when Dr. Marie-Eve Fecteau pulled the first spotted piglet from the sow Big Mama during Cesarean section surgery. At 10:19 a.m., she pulled out the last piglet. With their arrival, Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center had its first litter of the rare heritage swine breed Gloucestershire Old Spots.
The six piglets – two gilts (females) and four boars (males) – contribute to the foundation of an important heritage-breed research and preservation project by Penn Vet’s Swine Teaching and Research Center.
“We are at the critical stage of building up the numbers in our herd to be able to start detailed behavioral testing of heritage-breed animals,” said Thomas Parsons, VMD, PhD, Director of the Swine Center and Associate Professor of Swine Production Medicine. “We are researching our hypothesis that these heritage-breed animals have behavioral traits that could allow sows to be more successful living in loose housing systems.”
The project is funded by a three-year, $240,000 grant from the SVF Foundation at Swiss Village Farm, a non-profit foundation devoted to preserving rare and endangered breeds of food and fiber livestock, including pigs, cattle, goats, and sheep.
“We want to support people who are raising heritage-breed pigs,” said Sarah Bowley, Program Director of the SVF Foundation, based in Newport, Rhode Island.
“We are hoping to have real scientific data come out of this project that shows useful differences between heritage-breed pigs and commercial breeds,” she continued. “This will give breeders a new foothold in the marketplace and prove that there is value in these animals.”
Dr. Parsons is particularly enthusiastic about the team assembled by Penn Vet to work on this project. “We simply have some of the best and the brightest,” he said.
The team includes:
- Seth Dunipace, VMD, a Fulbright Scholar who returned to Penn Vet after two years of researching swine in Denmark
- Kristina Horback, PhD in experimental psychology, who has extensively studied behavioral differences between individual elephants, whales, and dolphins
- Ines Rodriguez, VMD, a New Bolton Center staff veterinarian who oversees the health care of the Swine Center and specializes in swine breeding
The Gloucestershire Old Spots are the second heritage breed established at New Bolton Center for this project. Four litters of the Tamworth piglets were introduced via Cesarean section a year ago and are now being bred. Their offspring – bred, born, and raised exclusively at the Swine Center – are expected to arrive in April and will be the first to be studied and researched in detail.
The project protocol dictates that four litters from distinct, unrelated pigs are required for each breed introduced in order to maximize genetic diversity. The Swine Center has retained two boars from each Tamworth litter and a total of 13 gilts.
The plan is for the Center to have four litters of Gloucestershire Old Spots, as well. Swiss Village Farm is actively recruiting other bred sows to participate. A year from now, the Gloucestershire Old Spots piglets will be ready for breeding.
“Our interest is to get a profile of their personality traits and compare them to the commercial breed we have in the Center,” said Dr. Rodriguez, noting that most conventional sows are a Landrace-Yorkshire cross.
The Swine Center is a bio-secure environment. The heritage-breed pregnant sows are tested to make sure they do not carry diseases or viruses that could be passed to their offspring in utero. To further reduce the exposure to bacteria in the birth canal, the piglets are delivered by Cesarean section and are then nursed from a foster sow in the Center.
The Swine Center pioneered “Penn Gestation,” a loose housing system for pregnant sows that allows for greater freedom of movement compared to the industry standard, the gestation stall. More than 60 major food retailers have called for stalls to be removed from their supply chains in the next decade, and pig producers are looking for solutions to accommodate these market demands. Penn Vet has helped transition more than 120,000 sows out of gestation stalls across the country.
As an extension of their outreach efforts, the Center’s research with heritage breeds is focused on identifying the best animal for loose housing. Most sows on commercial farms have been selected for decades to be successful in a crated husbandry system. With ”Penn Gestation,” the pigs are free to roam about, are fed individually by an electronic sow feeder, and must learn to get along with other pigs in their social group.
“The vast majority of domestic animals in human care are food animals,” said Dr. Dunipace. “So if we can improve the welfare of individual animals by even just a little bit, it can make a big impact on overall animal welfare.”
For instance, if the research shows that heritage breeds are less prone to aggression, the team at Penn Vet hopes to maximize improvement in productivity and welfare across the board by breeding those traits into the commercial herd.
“It is a question, a hypothesis,” Dr. Dunipace said. “Can we make the pigs more docile so they don’t fight? Some of it is based on personality, which begs the question: Is personality heritable?”
Dr. Horback has started pilot behavioral studies on the Tamworth pigs to prepare for the arrival of the new babies in four months. "I'm looking at the consistency of individual behavioral differences or personality," she said. “What makes these animals different?”
The Gloucestershire Old Spots breed, known for its distinctive white coat with black spots, was developed in Gloucestershire, England in the 1800s and imported to the United States in the 1900s. The breed is known for its docility, intelligence, and ability to thrive by foraging and grazing out of doors. Gloucestershire Old Spots are critically endangered, meaning there are only a few hundred remaining in the world.
“It’s really exciting for me to work with different breeds to see how they are similar and how they are different,” said Dr. Rodriguez. “I think pigs are really special. I love working with them. Besides, everybody loves piglets.”
See photos of the Gloucestershire Old Spot piglets here.